Dorian Gray and The Subtle Art of Resisting Temptation

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a popular novel by Oscar Wilde. It tells the story of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray whose enchanted portrait bears the scars of his old age and his sins while his own body never grows old nor develops any visible signs of decay or disability. Dorian sells his soul to make this happen.

Dorian certainly doesn't waste his gift of eternal youth, ill-gotten though it may be. He spends his years immersed in debauchery, seducing multiple women while permanently ruining their reputation in society and developing an unhealthy addiction for opium. He also influences his friends to take the same path as himself, leading them to their ruin.

When we first meet him in the story, Dorian is just a good looking man with a decent personality. However, there are several distinct points in his life that cause him to abandon all virtue and fall headlong into a life of uninhibited hedonism.

Interestingly, these tipping points are stimuluses and impulses we all encounter in our daily lives.

And often, it's these little nudges that derail a perfectly good day and turn it into something irrevocably regrettable. While most of us may not be wilfully ruining other people's lives and making poor choices on an hourly basis like Dorian, it is possible that there are some subtle base impulses that we're yielding to without consciously realising it.

And if left unchecked, these subconscious choices can derail our life in irreparable ways.

I hope that by reading this, you are alerted to potential triggers that could become problematic if unchecked.

#1 - A vaguely defined moral compass

Barely seventeen are scarcely aware of his good looks and the effect it produces on people, Dorian is a run of the mill pretty boy before he makes his Faustian deal. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be especially intelligent or self-aware enough to recognise what he wants out of his life. One chance encounter with a stranger is all it takes for Dorian to instantly declare that the only meaningful thing to do in life is to pursue pleasure. And that his beauty is enough to get him through just about anything in life with zero consequences.

In my own life, I've found myself to be especially susceptible to taking on someone else's views when I don't have an informed opinion on the subject myself. Opinions are a dime a dozen these days, and you're likely to find more individuals staunchly defending their hot-takes than those who are willing to update their view based on emerging facts. If you don't distance yourself from the noise of opinion and slowly work out your own stance about something, you run the risk of inadvertently believing something just because it's the most commonly accepted view, or perhaps just because it's a view that isn't too commonly held - and you want to stand out from the crowd. Either way, if you don't do the groundwork, you might be inadvertently leading yourself down a path that you don't wish to take.

#2 - The Subtly toxic friend(s)

Lord Henry Wotton is one of Dorian's closest friends. He's a mesmerising conversationalist who can effortlessly convince anyone of just about anything. Dorian is easily persuaded by Lord Henry and seems to idolise the man from their first meeting. Lord Henry casually advocates the pursuit of moral and immoral experiences and always reminds Dorian that his beauty is worthy of worship.

While Lord Henry eggs Dorian on to live recklessly and give in to all his temptations, it’s interesting to note that Lord Henry himself lives a seemingly normal life, never giving in to any excesses, nor causing any scandals of his own. He’s fully aware of Dorian’s deteriorating reputation in society and the extent of corruption that’s taking hold of him, but he does nothing to put a stop to it. If anything, Lord Henry seems to enjoy watching the spectacle of Dorian’s life from afar. While there’s nothing overtly toxic in their relationship, it’s pretty obvious that Lord Henry does not really care about Dorian.

If you recognise anyone in your circle who is a lot of fun but also leaves you feeling guilty after you've agreed to their ideas, it might be worth reexamining why you have them in your life. You might get 'some good stories' from hanging out with them, but really, if you look back at these incidents with regret rather than with fondness, it's a clear sign that something isn't quite right. You're not obligated to live a life that serves someone else's agenda, nor benchmark yourself to someone else's standards of ' the good life'.

Limiting contact with subtly toxic friends can shield you from influences that can have a pernicious effect on the quality of your own life. Choose your crew wisely.

#3 - Lack of self reproach

Dorian promises marriage to a beautiful actress named Sybil Vane, but breaks it off with her when her acting ability wanes. He treats her so unkindly that she kills herself after their argument. Dorian is initially upset when he hears this, but quickly recovers, making up a narrative inside his head where he believes that none of this is his fault. What’s more, he doesn’t attend the funeral, choosing to go instead to a party with his high society friends on the very night of hearing of the girl’s suicide.

There's a lot going on there, but what stands out is the utter lack of remorse that Dorian shows towards this whole incident. And it gets worse from that point forward because Dorian continues to go about his life using and abusing people around him without once thinking about the consequences of his actions.

The painting becomes marred with disfigurations and scars every time he does something immoral, and Dorian thinks that as long as no one calls him out, there's really nothing wrong in what he is doing. He does not allow his conscience to ever come to the fore.

For me, this usually manifests as the desire to just tell a white lie instead of admitting the truth. Often little things like these snowball into harmful behavioural patterns that can become hard to break. Most people usually know when they've gone over the line, but if you suspect that you're overriding your principles more than abiding by them, maybe it's time to crack the whip and sort yourself out.

#4 - Tendency to numb rather than engage with difficult emotions

Dorian murders his friend, not in the figurative sense, but literally stabs him. Instead of confessing and paying for his crime, he chooses to get high on opium and forget everything. He even thinks to himself that 3 days worth of the stuff should be enough to get through the agony of having murdered someone.

It's clear that Dorian has been numbing his conscience, his good sense and even his guilt with all kinds of intoxicants and sedatives. In fact, he's worked out which drug would drive away each of his 'difficult' feelings, and has easy access to such drugs.

This is a slippery slope. Often innocuous addictions to chocolate, television and even coffee can change colour and cause serious dependencies. The suppressed emotions always have a way of coming back stronger than ever necessitating larger doses of the 'drug' to combat the unpleasant feelings. It's not easy to spot this in our daily lives, but one way to find out if you're avoiding difficult emotions is to sit down at the end of the day and write down all the uncomfortable things you felt that day. Next, write down what caused these feelings. After that, write down honestly the first thing that you did when the feeling presented itself. Did you reach for your phone to distract yourself? Did you reach for a cookie? Did you bite your nails or look at the spot where you store alcohol? Reflecting every day or every week can paint a picture of your unhealthy coping mechanisms. If you already know what yours is, there's no time like the present to find a way out of this.

#5 - Using talents to manage regret more than improve life

Dorian is well connected in high society due to his charming demeanor and divine appearance. He is friends with Alan Campbell, a talented young scientist who has his work published in scientific journals. Dorian reaches out to Campbell to help cover up a murder and he succeeds. No one ever finds out that Dorian has committed such a heinous crime.

I'm not suggesting that being well connected enough to get away with murder is a good 'talent' to have, but of all the things Dorian could have done with his natural beauty and connections, he lives so thoughtlessly that all his ingenuity is directed towards vile ends. Despite having eternal youth, Dorian never seems to be truly happy having to constantly spin his wheels and cover his tracks, only to make more messes later.

Taking responsibility for your decisions is of utmost importance. It's equally important to consciously make an effort not to make so many poor decisions that life becomes a charade of making the same mistakes over and over again and sloppily cleaning up those mistakes. Repeated mistakes are the key here. If you're giving in to an impulse too often, it's likely that it's taken a hold of you and become a habit. You'll have to consciously push back against this to combat it. Get professional help if you need to.

Often, we learn more from tragic characters' cautionary tales more than simple fables of everyday heroes. Dorian Gray's story may be set in the 1800s, but the temptations that he faced aren't very different from the ones we are faced with. We're all susceptible to making poor choices but what leads to tragedy is often an uninhibited series of such poor choices.

If this article resonates with you, take a moment to reflect and decide consciously as to who you will be from this point forward.

It doesn't have to be a grand gesture. But remember that every choice you make, no matter how small leads you towards or away from who you want to be. Choose wisely.

Author of 'How to be a Lighthouse'. I write for those pursuing excellence and meaning.